Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

Have you heard this one? Almost one third of Americans would rather clean their bathrooms than do a math problem.

This is what the non-profit organization Change the Equation found in a 2010 survey. When Raytheon Corporation asked 1,000 middle schoolers if they’d rather eat broccoli or do a math problem, a majority said broccoli.

The joke is on us, however. The country has a shrinking labor pipeline and growing need for workers skilled in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. The key to solving the problem lies in starting young, according to JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care.

“In a globally competitive economy, with employers of all shapes and sizes increasingly seeking workers skilled in science, technology, engineering, and math,” Chesloff writes in Education Week, “investing to ensure a pipeline of workers skilled in STEM competencies is a workforce issue, an economic-development issue, and a business imperative. And the best way to ensure return on these investments is to start fostering these skills in young children….

“Regardless of the industry—manufacturing, utilities, construction, technology, financial services—employers are looking for a talent pipeline that can produce workers proficient in the STEM disciplines. Concepts at the heart of STEM—curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking—are in demand. They also happen to be innate in young children.”

Chesloff lays out the problem. An estimated 76 million baby boomers will retire soon, but the pipeline to replace them consists of only 51 million people. Between 2008 and 2018, STEM occupations will have grown by 17% while other occupations experience only 9.8% growth, according to U.S. Department of Commerce estimates. Overall, every job has almost four applicants; with STEM-related openings there are almost two jobs perapplicant.

The answer, Chesloff writes, lies in high-quality early education, which research shows substantially reduces grade retention and juvenile arrests and substantially increases high school graduation and college attendance. Research also finds that the young brain is particularly open to learning math and logic concepts and that early math skills strongly predict later learning.

“Young children are natural-born scientists and engineers,” Chesloff writes. “High-quality early-learning environments provide children with a structure in which to build upon their natural inclination to explore, to build, and to question.”

Our future, Chesloff concludes, depends on making math more palatable. “To remain competitive in the global economy, investment is needed to ensure a workforce pipeline that would rather engage in science, technology, engineering, and math than cleaning bathrooms and eating broccoli,” he writes. “And the best way to shore up that pipeline is to start investing in it early.”